The nearly yearlong ravages of the COVID-19 virus left little for Deseret News editors to debate when they rallied for their annual assessment of the year’s most important news stories.
Those were the opening lines of Deseret News reporter Art Raymond’s compilation of the top Utah news stories of 2020. It could begin the same this year, with only slight variation. The deadly virus ravaged the state for all of 2021 as the pandemic has yet to let up, even as more Utahns become vaccinated.
On top of the coronavirus-induced hardships, severe drought plagued Utah and much of the West. Political strife, often over the pandemic, elections and redistricting, also continued in a sharply divided climate. Amid all of that, Utah’s economy remained robust and the state’s housing market saw a year like no other.
1. The pandemic continues
Going on nearly two years now, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact life in Utah, the nation and the world. Early in the year, cases in the state appeared to be on a downward trend. But the highly contagious delta variant sent case counts skyrocketing in the summer, and they have mostly remained high since. The Utah Department of Health considers the transmission rate in all but three of the state’s 29 counties high or very high.
The state health department had reported 617,697 COVID-19 cases and 3,704 deaths as of Dec. 17.
Nearly all of the nation’s COVID-19 cases are still fueled by the delta variant that first surfaced last spring and sparked surges starting in the summer, including a spike that branded Utah and the Intermountain West as the nation’s hot spot for the virus.
As more Utahns became sick, hospitals became overwhelmed with patients, keeping intensive care units filled to capacity and forcing many surgeries to be delayed.
Even as the delta variant drove a surge in cases, the new omicron variant seeped into the state. Utah public health officials have called the new strain a “wild card” as it starts to spread across the United States.
Utah marked Dec. 15 as one year since the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were made available to health care workers. Since the shots have become available to everyone over age 5, 62.2% of the population has been fully vaccinated. So far, more than 500,000 fully vaccinated Utahns have gotten a booster shot.
Local public health officials tussled with state lawmakers over mask mandates. The Utah Legislature specifically barred school districts from requiring masks, so at the start of the school year, local health departments in Salt Lake, Grand and Summit counties issued emergency health orders for masking in elementary schools. The Salt Lake County Council quickly overturned that county’s order, but Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall came up with her own executive order for masks in the city’s K-12 schools.
2. Drought plagues Utah, the West
Severe drought left Utah and part of the West, Southwest and Great Plains parched for much of the year. Water shortages gripped 17 states in 95% of the service area of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and half of that area experienced severe or extreme conditions.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued a state of emergency due to drought conditions in March with the entire state categorized in moderate drought, and about 90% of the state facing extreme drought.
The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District that operates multiple northern Utah reservoirs called the conditions dire. Reservoirs in that area were at record lows.
The nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — saw their capacity drop by half in a five-year period, leaving them at their lowest levels since they started filling decades ago.
In response to drought, water providers across the state instituted voluntary or mandatory cutbacks on secondary watering on landscapes, which makes up a whopping 60% of Utah’s municipal and industrial water consumption. The shortage forced water managers to dip into emergency supplies for farmers and ranchers.
Early season snowstorms gave a glimmer of hope for the new water year, which started Oct. 1, but a dry November didn’t do much to help the snowpack, according to state water officials. With 95% of Utah’s water supply coming from snowpack, many more storms are needed to reach an average snowpack.
3. Crazy housing market
In a word, the housing market in Utah and some places in the West was crazy. Utah, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada saw record-breaking home sales and price increases.
Wasatch Front homes were on the market a slim median five days in the first quarter of the year, a huge drop from 28 days in the first quarter of 2020. In Salt Lake County, Utah’s most populous county, 19,194 homes sold, breaking the previous all-time record of 18,907 homes in 2005. The median price in the county for single-family homes climbed to $468,000 in the first quarter, up $68,000 or 17% from a year earlier.
And the frenzy really didn’t settle down. By the third quarter, the median home price in Salt Lake County had jumped to $550,000.
The number of sales of all housing types across the Wasatch Front did drop by the end of October, a sign the Utah market has stabilized, according to the Salt Lake Board of Realtors.
As home prices have continued to rise across the country, especially in the West, a recent study suggested prices are poised to flatten in five of the “most overvalued markets” in the nation, which include Ogden and Provo.
4. New era for Larry H. Miller companies
The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, one of Utah’s biggest and most recognizable businesses underwent massive changes.
The company, now owned by the late Larry H. Miller’s wife, Gail Miller, sold Larry H. Miller auto dealerships, a portfolio of over 70 auto centers across the West that were all owned for over four decades by the household name.
The news came on the heels of several other major moves by the company, including, the sale of the Utah Jazz to Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith; the acquisition of Advanced Health Care Corp.; and the purchase of Daybreak, one of Salt Lake County’s largest master-planned communities in suburban South Jordan.
Steve Starks, CEO of the Miller Group of Companies, said the move out of the car dealership business is a step toward diversifying the company’s portfolio with a goal of “continuing to enrich the community.”
5. The Utah congressional delegation
What was expected to be a routine counting of Electoral College votes in Congress turned into a deadly siege when hundreds of election protesters who supported soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol. During the mayhem, Trump accidentally called Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, amid the evacuation of the Senate chamber. As Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, fled the chamber, a Capitol Police officer redirected him away from the mob. Newly sworn Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, feared for his life as armed protesters pounded on the barricaded House chamber door.
After authorities restored order in the Capitol, Congress returned to certify the electoral votes declaring Democrat Joe Biden the winner. Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens were among Republican House members who voted for the failed objection to certifying the Pennsylvania results.
House Democrats went on to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection. Utah’s four GOP congressmen, including Rep. John Curtis, voted against impeachment. In the Senate trial, Romney was among seven Republicans and all 50 Democrats who voted to remove Trump from office. Lee voted against conviction. Trump was acquitted.
On major legislation, all six members of the Utah delegation voted against Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in March, saying it’s wasteful, saddles future generations with insurmountable debt and is largely unneeded in Utah.
In November, Romney stood alone among the delegation in voting for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, a bipartisan package he helped negotiate to repair the nation’s roads, bridges and utilities.
6. Utah Legislature exerts control
Ignoring maps drawn by the voter-approved Independent Redistricting Commission, the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature adopted new congressional district boundaries of its own making in a November special session. Lawmakers approved the map despite multiple failed attempts by Democrats to prevent it from “splitting” or “cracking” many of their home communities, swaths in Salt Lake County that make up some of the state’s more urban, liberal areas.
During its 45-day general session earlier in the year, lawmakers exerted legislative control over COVID-19 restrictions. The Legislature passed bills to restrict the governor’s emergency powers and spell out a timeline to end Utah’s pandemic-related restrictions — including a statewide mask mandate.
7. Dixie State University name change
Emotions ran high in southern Utah and across the state over the debate to rename Dixie State University. A proposed name change for the St. George-based school was one of the most contentious issues Utah lawmakers considered during the year.
Discussions about the university’s name had been going on for decades but intensified after protests across the country following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 while in police custody in Minneapolis.
A study found the Dixie name problematic for students and alumni and had hindered the university’s ability to recruit students, faculty, staff and had limited its ability to build partnerships and obtain grants and funding. While the name is cherished in the region, nationally it did not encompass inclusion and acceptance, school officials said. Opponents said stripping the Dixie title would be akin to cancel culture.
In the end, after months of debate, discussion, petitions and protest, the school’s name was changed to Utah Tech University.
8. Utah economy remains robust
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah has one of the strongest economies in the country, though like everywhere else supply chain issues caused some headaches.
Utah’s unemployment rate of 2.4% has held down the No. 2 spot in the nation, bested only by Nebraska’s 2% for the month of September according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the state has more overall jobs than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the job participation rate is still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels.
Supply chain transportation issues combined with understaffed manufacturing and distribution operations amid national labor shortages amplified challenges for retailers in all sectors. Shipping delays, out-of-stock items and higher prices led to some holiday shopping angst.
All those issues weigh on the minds of those running companies or working toward building continued growth, but some in Utah’s economic community believe the best is yet to come.
9. Afghan refugees make new home in Utah
Amid the pullout, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox penned a letter to President Joe Biden, telling the administration that the state stands ready to welcome refugees from Afghanistan. The state partnered with the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services to receive the Afghans.
In all, 765 Afghan refugees who fled the country as the Taliban overtook Kabul were scheduled to be resettled in Utah. Some shared harrowing stories of their escape during the chaotic and deadly withdrawal that left 13 U.S. service members dead outside the Kabul airport, including Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, a Marine from Utah.
10. Gabby Petito
The disappearance and suspected murder of Gabby Petito captured the nation’s attention, and for a time focused on southern Utah. The 22-year-old woman went missing during a cross-country road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. Their travels took them through Utah, including Moab where police in August investigated an incident between the couple.
Moab police and Arches National Park rangers talked to Petito and Laundrie about a possible domestic assault, stemming from an argument. Police separated the couple for the night but didn’t file any charges.
Petito’s body was found near an undeveloped camping area bordering Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in September. A Wyoming coroner determined she had been strangled to death. Laundrie returned to his home in Florida driving Petito’s van 10 days before her family reported her missing. He also disappeared. His remains were discovered at the end of October in a Florida nature reserve. He died by suicide from a gunshot to the head.